What Happens If People Believe the Facebook Movie?

They say history is written by the victors, but the reality is that Hollywood prefers a sexy story. The upcoming movie, “The Social Network,” is based on the semi-fictionalized accounts of those jilted during the founding of Facebook. Starring Justin Timberlake and Andrew Garfield (who’s about to be the next Spider-Man), written by Andrew SorkinAaron Sorkin, directed by David Fincher, produced by Kevin Spacey, scored by Trent Reznor, and about a massive cultural phenomenon, there’s a good chance people are actually going to pay attention to this movie.

The Social Network,” due in theaters October 1, was inspired by “The Accidental Billionaires,” an unauthorized, dramatized account billed as a non-fiction work by Ben Mezrich, who popularized the (similarly embellished) story of MIT students taking over Vegas in “Bringing Down the House.” Mezrich’s book is told from the perspective of three early influences on Facebook who were screwed out of their roles in the company by founder CEO Mark Zuckerberg: Tyler Winklevoss (who, along with his brother, informally hired Zuckerberg to build a similar site, which Zuckerberg bailed on while creating and launched what was then called thefacebook; they sued and received $65 million), Eduardo Saverin (Zuckerberg’s Harvard friend who financed the early days of the company and was diluted out of his stake after it raised outside funding) and Sean Parker (who was Zuckerberg’s Silicon Valley role model, but was kicked out of the company after getting busted at a party where there were drugs and an underage Facebook employee).

Because Mezrich didn’t even talk to the most important character in his book, Zuckerberg, the details on many events are incredibly sketchy. (Not that Mezrich didn’t sketch them out himself, in almost comically dramatized scenes: “Maybe Mark took a deep swig of the beer, let the bitter taste bite at the back of his throat, as he tapped his fingers against the laptop keyboard, gently summoning the thing awake.”)

If you read Mezrich’s book proposal, which was passed around online in 2008, you get all of the sex, drugs and rock and roll that’s spread out across those 250 pages — pitched with even more exaggeration than in the actual text, to my reading. In fact, Mezrich’s proposal was so appealing, much of the movie was apparently based on it alone.

Asa Mathat | All Things Digital

Zuckerberg is no angel, but the book is not fact either. A Hollywood version of it is going to be even further from the truth. And that’s more or less fine when we’re talking about some dead president or famous composer, but these Facebook events happened only five years ago. Now the social network is a highly present, relevant and still-evolving part of many people’s lives. Mark Zuckerberg is already pretty well antagonized in the public eye for his positions on privacy, his success at a young age and his awkwardness. I wonder what happens if the leading perception of him is based on trumped-up anecdotes about immature antics, creating a site to get laid and ruthlessly casting aside his best friends.

Though the book quits its story when Saverin is kicked out of the company, the marketing for the movie is more about the present day. The advertised website URL is 500millionfriends.com (an expected milestone that Facebook itself hasn’t announced publicly), and the tagline is “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.” Meanwhile, Reznor endorsed “The Social Network” on his website on Thursday as “dark” and “really f***ing good.”

Facebook, to date, has made minimal comments about the book and movie. It’s clear the company doesn’t know what to make of it — and that could come back to haunt them. The company declined to say whether it has figured out a PR strategy, should the movie set off a backlash. (Though of course, many current and former Facebook employees are intrigued to see themselves and their coworkers portrayed.) Facebook’s Elliot Schrage provided us with the following statement:

The Social Network is a big-budget Hollywood movie based on a pretty poor book. We’ve been given to understand that, not unlike the book, the characters are caricatures and the stories are exaggerations of things that didn’t quite happen the way the writers would like. But this is a movie, not a documentary and we hope to be entertained.

Though the Mezrich book debuted at No. 4 on the New York Times Non-fiction Bestseller List, its story of excess and betrayal has not been the leading narrative about Facebook. Much more interesting has been the site’s quick and continuing growth, its problems with privacy and the ways people use it. Not exactly drama befitting a Hollywood blockbuster. But when you start seeing bus posters and TV commercials with the face of a certain former boy-band frontman (Timberlake plays the similarly curly haired Parker)… well, people may actually watch this movie. And Mark Zuckerberg is going to be a household name in an entirely different way than before.

Please see the disclosure in my bio about Facebook.